Thursday, 21 October 2010

A wise man from the sea

After 130 days of political crisis King Albert appointed a new mediator on Thursday afternoon: Johan Vande Lanotte, former deputy prime minister and former president of the Flemish socialist party, the fifth largest group in Parliament. About this appointment the palace willingly neglected to consult the largest party and winners of the last elections, the Flemish nationalist.

Johan Van de Lanotte was called to the palace of Laeken in the early afternoon on Thursday. In a statement after the meeting at 4 pm the palace announced that he was appointed for ‘a mission of conciliation’. His first task is to figure out what the different scenarios that have been put on the table up to now for a new Finance Law will mean in terms of money for the different regions. For this he should consult experts of the National Bank and the Bureau du Plan.

Vande Lanotte, 55, and from the coastal city of Ostend, was deputy prime minister of Belgium for eight years, minister of the Interior for four and minister of the Budget for five. Besides he teaches Constitutional Law at the University of Ghent. But the main reason that he was appointed is probably that his party, the SPA (Flemish socialists), which he led between 2005 and 2007, is both Flemish and socialist and thus in between the main rivals in the negotiations, the Flemish nationalist NVA and the French-speaking socialists of the PS.

In a brief statement to the press after his appointment Vande Lanotte said that he would work in complete discretion and report a first time to the King on the 2nd of November. After that day it will become extremely difficult to dissolve Parliament and hold new elections before the end of the year. The next possibility is a dissolution of parliament early December.

The appointement of Vande Lanotte came after King Albert had consulted the presidents of six of the seven negotiating parties in the previous days. The last was Elio di Rupo of the French-speaking socialists who stayed three hours at the palace on Thursday morning. Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, was no more consulted after he left the palace on Monday evening, where he had announced his resignation as ‘clarifier’. There had been no official statement of the palace about the end of his mission Monday.

Leading figures of the NVA said on Thursday evening they were ready to work with Vande Lanotte, but that the party was in no way consulted about the appointment. They added that the search for a seven party coalition – which Vande Lanotte has to revive -  had come to a dead end, not because of the lack of clear statistics, but because of the refusal of the PS to accept the necessary reforms for the country.

Earlier in the day the leader of the socialist trade union, Rudy De Leeuw, launched a frontal attack on the NVA. He accused the party of trying to promote neoliberal remedies through institutional reform and called all progressive parties to unite against the attack on the Belgian social model.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Another one bites the dust

Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, has failed in his attempt to form a new Belgian government. After 127 days since the elections took place, the shouting across the linguistic border inside Belgium is rapidly escalating

De Wever was appointed ‘clarificateur’ by King Albert on the 8th of October. His mission was limited in scope and time: in ten days he had to find it if was still possible to make a compromise on institutional reform the corner-stone of a seven-party coalition (socialists, Christian-democrats and greens from both parts of the country, and the Flemish nationalists as the largest party of Belgium). Negotiations for this coalition had been dragging for almost six weeks after Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists had failed in his attempt.

The nationalists leader saw each of his colleagues and delivered a proposal on institutional reform of 48 pages on Sunday the 17th. Shortly afterwards he made the proposal public. It was the first time in four months that a written text was put on the table.

Although De Wever announced that his proposal would be balanced and full of clear choices, it was neither balanced, nor clear. It elaborated on earlier proposals of Di Rupo, but gave these a stronger twist towards devolution, the main aim of the Flemish parties. The latter was especially the case for the Finance Law (the knot of all negotiations), with larger fiscal responsibilities for the regions. The proposal did not create new and clear-cut structures for a new Belgium, but built on previous institutional reforms.

Within three hours after the publication of the De Wevers proposal the Parti Socialiste of Elio di Rupo ripped them apart on Sunday evening in a press statement that called it ‘unilateral and provocative’. The French-speaking socialists continued on Monday in using ever stronger terms to condemn De Wevers approach. The two smaller French-speaking parties of the left almost ritually followed this escalation.

The Flemish nationalist leader received nevertheless the support of most of the Flemish media and all the Flemish political parties for his text. Strengthened by this support, and apparently shocked by the rapid condemnation of the PS, his party too started to become vociferous against the French-speaking counterparts. It radicalised its tone again on the thorny issue of the electoral district of Brussels-Halle-Vilvoorde and announced that, as far as it was concerned, ‘the story was over’.

At 5 pm De Wever reported about his mission to King Albert. One hour later he left the palace again, no longer in charge. In a television interview afterwards he said that the French-speaking parties would have to accept change in the country, and that otherwise new elections would be inevitable.

The King will probably seek to win time, hoping that tempers will calm down again. As the idea of  a seven-party coalition is now almost dead, he might still sent out a liberal to have a try, more for formal than for convincing reasons.

New elections, six months after the previous ones, are indeed the most likely outcome. Although few people believe they might solve anything, they might rapidly turn into a vote on the survival of Belgium as the impasse has now been lasting for three and a half years. In the meantime a brutal power struggle is already filling the scenery, with escalating nasty nationalist tones on both sides rapidly becoming the hype of the moment.


Sunday, 17 October 2010

Another failed attempt

The three French speaking parties that negotiate a new Belgian government reacted negatively on Sunday evening to a 48 pages large proposal of the royal mediator Bart De Wever. He had shortly before announced that he had tabled a text of compromise, with clear choices.

De Wever made his proposal public at 4 pm on Sunday. In it he elaborated on the proposals that had been tabled six weeks ago by Elio di Rupo. De Wever gave these a new twist towards decentralization, but like Di Rupo before he stayed within the framework of previous institutional reforms. The ‘clear choices’ that he had announced were not immediately visible.

In the same way it was not evident that he had reached a compromise between Flemish and French-speaking parties. As devolution is almost only a Flemish demand, the Flemish nationalist leader proposed, by choosing for a strong impetus towards decentralization, advances for the Flemish point of view, obviously without too much compensation towards the sensitivities of his French-speaking counterparts.

In the first chapter of his proposal De Wever advocated a series of pay cuts for the members of the federal and regional parliaments in Belgium (the country has seven kinds of parliaments with globally almost 500 representatives). They seemed rather cheap, as at the same time he did not mention more efficient proposals for cuts in the overgrown Belgian institutions such as the abolition of the Senate and the province councils.

Less than four hours after the publication of his proposal, and one hour after the press conference De Wever gave about it, the three French speaking parties that sit with him around the negotiating table had already rejected the text. For the main one, the Parti Socialiste of Elio di Rupo, ‘the text of Mr. De Wever does not bring any closer the points of views of Flemish and French-speaking Belgians, although this was the mission that the King conferred to him”.

The party accused the nationalist leader of ‘trying to suffocate’ the development of the Walloon and the Brussels region through his proposals for a new Finance Law. It condemned the proposals as ‘unilateral and sometimes even provocative’ and feared they would ‘strengthen the tensions between Flemish and Walloons’.

The Flemish parties did not want to react immediately. Tomorrow afternoon De Wevers ten-day mission comes to an end, and he will have to report to King Albert. It is already unlikely that he will bring good news to the palace.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

The first written words, after four months

After a short round of consultations this week, Bart De Wever will tomorrow deliver a concrete set of proposals about institutional reform to the seven parties that have been negotiating for a new Belgian government since June. The seven will have to react on Monday noon at the latest.

De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist party, was appointed by King Albert on Friday the 8th with a “clarification mission” for the stalled negotiations. The following weekend saw some acrimonious shouting between the leaders of the seven parties, the most vociferous being Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialist. He had to give way for the prime role on the scenery to De Wever. Then, from Tuesday to Thursday, De Wever saw each of the party leaders apart.

Early on Friday the news broke that the royal negotiator had tried to put the proposals that had been discussed the last few months on paper, and to clarify these. Elio di Rupo, who had been attempting to form the government from July to September, had never put any proposal on paper, although he seemed to have advanced considerably.

On Friday noon De Wever issued a statement in which he announced that he would work out a proposal on institutional reform, on paper. That proposal would be submitted Sunday morning to the seven parties around the table, who would have to answer at the latest on Monday at noon. Monday afternoon, De Wever has to report to King Albert, as had been agreed at the beginning of his ten-day mission.

The nationalist leader warned that ‘my proposal will be a compromise, but one with clear choices’. He elaborated a lot on that, which led him also to the cryptic phrase that he ‘wants a social security for the poor, not of the poor’.

The royal negotiator said he wanted to get rid with the practices of the past ‘where hugely complicated constructions were agreed that after a while only worsened the problems’. Each party would find painful concessions in the proposal, ‘including my own one’.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Who’s to be the next prime minister?

King Albert II of Belgium has sent out Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists, to restart the negotiations for a new Belgian government. On Friday evening he appointed him for a limited mission that should end on the 18th of October. In what preceded the decision, it became clear that a battle for becoming the next prime minister has put up an additional difficulty.

The king invited De Wever (picture from Pierre-Yves Thienpont) at 7:30 pm on Friday, after he had consulted each of the presidents of the seven parties that  had negotiated for a new government up to now (the christian democrats, socialists and greens from each side of the country and the Flemish nationalists). The liberals were again left out, although De Wever, in his talks with the king,  had insisted to consult them.

This element  shows the complexity of the situation. The core dispute remains that Flanders has an outright centre-right majority and  French-speaking Belgium a centre-left. In the last two decades the Belgian sum of both was a centre-left federal government. This explains why a huge majority in Flanders nowadays demands radical devolution, something most French-speaking parties want to prevent.

With the French-speaking liberals of the MR indicating that they are prepared to discuss this radical devolution, there is now an overall majority in parliament for this. But as the three left parties in French-speaking Belgium (socialists, Christian democrats and greens) are tied to each other and refuse to let the MR in, there is no majority in Wallony neither for devolution, nor for a federal government with strong centre-right accents. The stakes are high, not the least because budget cuts for about 22 billion euros are on the agenda in the next four years.

In the hours before De Wever was invited to the palace for the second time in two days, there were some clear indications that the negotiations have definitely become a battle about who’s to become the next prime minister.  Elio di Rupo, the leader of the French-speaking socialists and the other great winner of the elections, tried to lure the Flemish socialists and Christian democrats into proposing one of their own prominent figures to take the lead in the negotiations. Clearly this was intended to prevent De Wever of getting that role.

De Wevers right hand Ben Weyts was giving a tv-interview on Friday evening just when the news broke that the king had invited the Flemish nationalist leader again. Weyts definitely enjoyed and defended the fact that his party and its boss were now taking the lead in Belgium. This has been a contested issue within the ranks of the Flemish nationalists, but De Wever has an absolute authority in his ranks nowadays. A new opinion poll on Friday showed his party gaining another 5 % of the votes in Flanders, compared to the elections of June, and De Wever as being by large the most popular in the northern half of Belgium.

As the last few days both Di Rupo and De Wever pushed the king towards a higly political choice between themselves and between negotiations with or without the liberals, the palace finally found an elegant way out: it appointed De Wever for a mission of limited scope, officially within the framework preferred by di Rupo. The statement of the palace, issued at 9:15 pm said that he has to find out in ten days if a compromise can be reached with the seven parties (without the liberals) on the four most intricate institutional issues.

De Wever already added that his role is limited to see if one can continue with the seven parties, but did not exclude that he might see the liberals to explore this issue. Just as when he was ‘informateur’ for a short while last June, he announced that he would work in all discretion

To baptise this new-born child, king Albert again proved to be highly creative. Like with ‘preformateur’ di Rupo three months ago, he found a new name for the task he assigned to  De Wever; he is entitled with ‘a mission of clarification’ (‘mission de clarification’ in French, ‘verduidelijkingsopdracht’ in Dutch). A ‘mission of enlightment’ seems yet not to be on the agenda.


Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Knock Knock who's there?

King Albert II of Belgium accepted on Tuesday evening the resignation of the two mediators he had appointed one month ago to find a way out of the stalled negotiations for a new Belgian government. It is now high probable that he will sent out the leader of the Flemish nationalists, Bart De Wever, who broke down the latest round of talks.

André Flahaut, the president of the Lower House, and Danny Pieters, his colleague of the Senate (both on the picture), acknowledged on a press conference at 7 pm Tuesday that during four weeks they had not succeeded in bringing the seven parties that had negotiated for a new government in the summer back together around the table. But they nevertheless had booked some progress on the issues in discussion, they said.

Flahaut and Pieters had shortly before handed in their resignation to king Albert at the royal palace in Laeken. They did so one day after Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalist, had asked during a press conference to start the negotiations back from scratch as they had ended in deadlock.

The latter was denied by the three French-speaking parties who had participated in the negotiations. They reacted furiously on De Wevers decision, claiming that he was not capable of making agreements. The three other Flemish parties also reacted negatively, although less vehemently. Didier Reynders, the leader of the French-speaking liberals, who stayed out of the negotiations, immediately again stressed that he was ready to discuss far-reaching fiscal autonomy for the regions, the main demand of the NVA

During his press conference De Wever indicated he was ready to support the outgoing government in parliament if urgent measures had to be taken the coming months. In a press statement from the royal palace, King Albert asked outgoing prime minister Yves Leterme on Tuesday afternoon to take all measures needed to keep the economy in good shape. Leterme has repeatedly said that he does not see the necessity yet to give the caretaking government extra powers. It still has a majority of seats in parliament at his disposal and if necessary it still can go for a vote on specific issues, he said Tuesday.

King Albert will start a new round of consultations of the political parties on Wednesday afternoon, as this morning he has to see some Asian leaders who are on visit in Brussels for the summit with the EU. Many commentators now think that Bart De Wever will be sent out on a new mission, as it was him who ended the latest round of talks.

Twice in his press conference on Monday De Wever said that he ‘was ready to take up responsabilities’. That is the almost ritual phrase in Belgian politics to say that he wants to become the next prime minister. Nothing is more normal than that ambition for the leader of the largest political party in the country, which the Flemish nationalists are for the first time since the  elections of June.

But for Flemish nationalists it has in a symbolic way never been evident to take up the lead  of the more or less despised nation of Belgium. Besides they would have to make larger concessions to the French-speaking parties, the price most Flemish prime ministers always had (and were ready) to pay to obtain the keys of their new office at the center of Belgian political power.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

At last, an ultimatum

Bart De Wever, the leader of the Flemish nationalists (NVA), launched Sunday afternoon an ultimatum to the French-speaking parties that negotiate with him for a new Belgian government. If they do not accept by Monday that the regions should get at least 50 % of their incomes from own tax revenues, he ‘will see if it’s worth to continue the negotiations’.

The statement from the NVA-headquarters came as a surprise, after one of the new stars of the party, former VRT-journalist Siegfried Bracke, had seemed to talk moderately in the news- and talkshows of Sunday-noon about the need to reach an agreement. Nevertheless he too insisted that progress toward fiscal autonomy was the precondition ‘for starting all the reforms that our neighbours have already developed’

Progress was what had been missing all along in the discussions of the so-called high-level group, led by Jan Jambon and Jean-Claude Marcourt, that had worked a week long on the details of the Finance Law. Both chairmen delivered their report on Friday to André Flahaut en Danny Pieters, still mediators sent out by King Albert. In it they only noted the continuing differences between Flemish and French-speaking parties.

All this meant that the negotiations for a new Belgian government are stalled since about six weeks. No less than 111 days have passed since the elections of June the 13th.

In his statement of Sunday afternoon De Wever and his party said: ‘As long as it cannot be discussed that taxing of personal incomes could become a competence of the regions, it does not make sense for the NVA to start negotiating again. The party will wait what the French-speaking parties have to say about this. Based on this answer, it shall evaluate in its party council on Monday if it’s worth to continue the negotiations.’

The Flemish nationalists and most of the Flemish parties want to give the regions more fiscal autonomy, officially in order to make them more responsible for their spending behaviour in times of huge budget cuts. As the regions of Wallony and Brussels have been the weaker economies during the last decades, the French-speaking parties fear they will have to foot the bill.